Indian Springs, NV Thunderbirds Disaster, Jan 1982
4 AF THUNDERBIRDS CRASH NEAR LAS VEGAS BASE.
Indian Springs, Nev. (UPI) -- Four aircraft assigned to the U.S. Air Force precision flying Thunderbirds collided today during practice near the auxiliary Indian Springs air base and crashed in flames, the Air Force said.
There was no immediate indication whether any of the pilots survived, the Air Force said.
The accident occurred at 10 a.m. (1 p.m. EST) about 40 miles northwest of Nellis Air Force Base. Flames and smoke from the crash site were visible to residents at Indian Springs, an auxiliary air force base the Thunderbirds use in practice.
Loren Conaway, a mobile home resident at Indian Springs, saw the crash.
"I saw a huge column of black smoke going up. There appeared to be three major fires," said Conway. "The aircraft was broken in several pieces about and looked about a half mile from the runway, but I am a bad judge of distance."
"A lot of people ran over to look, we couldn't get too close."
The four planes, all T-38 trainers, were used in combination precision flying. Two other T-38s that are part of the team are used in solo demonstrations.
The four pilots were alone in the aircraft, Air Force officials said.
The collision marked the team's first accident since Sept. 9, 1981, when the jet of the team leader, LT. COL. DAVID SMITH, crashed at Cleveland's Burke Lakefront Airport. SMITH died when his parachute failed to open.
SMITH'S aircraft crashed after losing power when its two engines sucked in several seagulls on takeoff and skidded into Lake Erie.
The Thunderbirds canceled the remaining 11 weeks of their 1981 schedule.
Syracuse Herald Journal New York 1981-01-18
PILOT MISCALCULATION MAY HAVE LED TO THUNDERBIRDS CRASH.
Indian Springs, Nev. (UPI) -- An Air Force spokesman confirmed today a miscalculation by one of the pilots of the Thunderbirds air demonstration team may have led to Monday's crash in which four pilots were killed when their planes slammed into the desert and disintegrated at speeds approaching 400 miles per hour.
The four pilots were practicing a wing-to-wing upward roll maneuver when they almost simultaneously crashed near the landing strip of the Indian Springs Air Force Base.
Col. Mike Wallace of the Public Information Office at nearby Nellis Air Force Base, headquarters for the Thunderbirds, said today the pilots are trained to look at each other to determine their positions.
"In the maneuver they were doing, the pilot on the exterior left divides his time between checking the instruments and his right wing man," said Wallace.
He said the instruments tell the pilots air speed and altitude.
Could a miscalculation by one pilot cause the other three planes to follow his lead and crash in formation?
"I don't want to speculate. That's why we have a board to investigate," said Wallace.
Is it possible?
"Yes, it is possible," said the Air Force officer.
Wallace said Maj. Gen. Gerald D. Larson, the head of an Air Force investigation board, arrived at Nellis from New Hampshire at 10 p.m. PST Monday and met this morning for briefings. The officer planned to visit the crash site about 40 miles away by noon.
Larson and a team of 10-15 experts are expected to spend three weeks studying the wreckage of the four T-38s -- the worst crash in the 28-year history of the Air Force stunt flying team.
The manufacturer of the Thunderbirds' planes, Northrop Corp., discounted mechanical failure of the four supersonic T38 Talon jets as the cause.
"The airplane has been known to have a very, very good record," Northrop spokesman Monte Montgomery said in Hawthorne, Calif. "I don't think this particular accident had anything to do with the operation of the airplane at all. You don't have four airplanes fall at the same time."
The jets crashed almost simultaneously with what nearby Desert Springs residents described as an earthquake-like explosion that looked like a napalm bomb. Wreckage was strewn across a 1-square-mile area of desert 60 miles north of Las Vegas.
The crash brought to 19 the number of Thunderbird aviators killed since the formation of the group in 1953.
Witnesses said the pilots failed to pull out of their steep dive and crashed into the earth side by side, still in formation.
The fatal maneuver, called the "line abreast loop,"
called for the four pilots to streak 100 feet above the ground, sharply climb several thousand feet, make a loop in the sky, dive earthward and pull out of the loop 100 feet above the ground -- making a final side-by-side fly-by over the runway at speeds of 400 mph.
"It was not the most difficult maneuver," said Maj. Gen. James Gregory, Commander of the Tactical Weapons Fighter Center. "The wing positions are very critical so they don't bobble and also the pull out is very important."
Tom Sullivan, a Boulder City, Nev., man driving to a construction job at the time of the crash, said one jet hit "and the other three followed within a tenth of a second flying in formation."
"They didn't pull up fast enough," he said.
"Right before the crash they were climbing and then were rolling on a dive down to the ground," said another motorist, Jim Kelso of Ojai, Calif.
"Just as they pulled out of the dive all four of them hit the ground. The instant they hit we knew they were dead, no one could have survived."
The Thunderbird pilots were practicing for the 1982 show season when the accident occurred. The first of their 87 aerial shows had been scheduled for March 13, in Davis Mothan, Ariz., but officials said it was too early to determine when or if the season would begin.
Killed in the crash Monday were:
MAJ. NORMAN L. LOWRY III, 37, Radford, Va., a veteran of 264 combat flights in Vietnam and the new commander-leader of the Thunderbirds.
CAPT. WILLIE MAYS, 31, Ripley, Tenn., left wingman.
CAPT. JOSEPH "PETE" PETERSON, 32, Tuskegee, Ala., right wingman.
CAPT. MARK E. MELANCON, 31, Dallas, Texas, flying the slot position.
The 1982 show season would have been the debut for LOWRY and MELANCON as Thunderbird pilots.
Two solo members of the six-man team -- CAPT. DALE COOKE and MAJ. "HOSS" SHUMPERT JONES -- were practicing at nearby Nellis Air Base when their comrades were killed.
Ukiah Daily Journal California 1982-01-19